by Leonard Quart and Albert Auster
The Hollywood epic has usually meant Charlton Heston in beard, toga, or armor, spectacular effects and battle sequences, an inflated budget, and an adulteration of history and myth. In fact, Hollywood has rarely even bothered to vulgarize American history and myth, preferring to mine less controversial properties like the Old and New Testaments, the Crusades, and the Greeks and Romans.
There have, of course, been a number of puerile and a few brilliant epic films about the American Experience: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane, to name three of the best. Even in these films, however, with their formal virtuosity, grandeur of conception, and moments of revelation, the historical process is usually romanticized, distorted or personalized-reinforcing our mythology, not illuminating it. Gone with the Wind romanticizes slavery, the plantation and the Southern planter; Birth of a Nation romanticizes the Ku Klux Man. is patently racist, and promotes the most stereotypical versions of Reconstruction; and Citizen Kane. eschews the historical and social for the psychological, aesthetic and expressive. The latest effort in the tradition of epics which seriously try to evoke the American Experience is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II. Though possibly lest artistically complete than the three above films, The Godfather II attempts to confront the historical process in a manner the others failed to do.
The Godfather II is a sequel to a film whose narrative drive and choreographed violence made it one of the better genre films of recent years. It is colder, more severe, less violent and much more ambitious than the original The Godfather. Coppola still operates within a commercial context, often using epic compositions and local color as a substitute for real explanation and exploration. But there is more here than beautiful long shots and interesting lighting; there are moments when the epic and tragic elements are fused and something is revealed about how the dream in America distorted and destroyed immigrants’ lives.
It is true that serious objections can and will be raised to the use of the gangster as an archetype of the immigrant experience especially by those whose success was achieved outside of criminal avenues. Nevertheless, the linking of Horatio Alger and criminality is as old as the epithet “Robber Baron”, and the events of the last decades in Southeast Asia, Chile, Watergate, with their plots and laundered bank accounts smack of nothing less and possibly more than the gangster ethos. The gangster and politician may well be the last frontier of the Horatio Alger myth.
Coppola and his co-writer Mario Puzo seek to do more than expose and demythologize the Mafia. They use the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to dramatize the tragic dilemma that dominates the film. In the traditional epic style (Kane’s mysterious “rosebud”, Scarlett O’Hara’s idyllic Tara), there is a flashback to an idealized moment in Michael’s life. He remembers his father’s birthday party in 1941 and his decision to break from father and tribe, to go to war and choose his “country over his blood.” He has made a commitment to strangers, and left the passionate, amoral, but roughly just world of his father, Don Vito Corleone behind.
In The Godfather we see the Don in his old age, a benevolent and moral murderer, mythologized and personalized without a historical setting in which to place him. In The Godfather II Coppola has provided us with the early years of Don Vito, taking us from the operatic vendettas of Sicily, to the nostalgic archetypal scenes of emigration and settlement. Here the future Don moves casually from the life of a stoical, taciturn worker to a role of criminality and power. This part of the film is shot by Coppola thru soft-focus lens and in light, golden-toned colors. Images of the Statue of Liberty, Castle Gardens, tenements, music halls, pushcarts, processions and festivals are reproduced, sometimes looking like the photos of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines.
The detail is rich, vital and aesthetic and Robert De Niro’s young Don Vito emanates quiet authority and intelligence, his gravelly voice making a distinct link with Brando’s older Don in The Godfather. And though the whole immigrant epic of confrontation with an alien world and the tensions of acculturation are left untouched, the traditional codes of honor, obligation, familial responsibility that bound the first Don come alive. It is this strong tribal world that the young Michael seeks to escape, and though he ultimately becomes an integral part of the mob, he ironically sways it in directions which subvert its basic traditions.
He opts for corporate respectability through a partnership with Hyman Roth – who represents only betrayal and death. Roth is beautifully played by Lee Strasberg, who gives him a facade of lower middle class homilies and tastes; obsessive talk about health and an avuncular manner barely hide his murderous calculations and imperial plans. Roth’s life, unlike Don Vito’s, is devoid of family and friendship—his sole commitment is to making profits. His vision is not of a tribal chieftain who wishes to sustain and protect his brood while making war with and profit from strangers, but of an ITT executive who desires a Latin American empire and a president of his own choosing in the White House. It’s a vision in which flesh and blood don’t matter, and all people are mere commodities to be traded, sold and replaced. This world view is shared by a U.S. Senator, Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin), whose venality and racism are excelled only by his pomposity and hypocrisy. These men make natural partners for Fulgencio Batista, the decadent and corrupt dictator of Cuba whose only ideology is a commitment to a share of the profits of international corporations.
Michael’s decision to have the family go “legit in five or six years” is his ultimately futile attempt to bridge the gap between the tribal universe of Don Vito’s and the corporate one of Hyman Roth. It is also a way to extend his earlier decision, seemingly undermined by the death of his father, older brother and first wife in The Godfather, to make a life in the wider world. Michael’s decision is undermined by the world into which he seeks entry. The old Mafia of Don Vito’s Genco Olive Oil Company, with its numbers, juke boxes and prostitutes, is nearing its end, to be replaced by a Mafia which is just one more multi-national corporation whose legitimacy is mere appearance. So the old tribal traditions no longer work, but for Coppola their abandonment has only tragic consequences.
The center of Michael’s new legitimate empire is a Xanadu upon the shores of Lake Tahoe. The family lives in a beautiful armed fortress, and there Michael tries to bind up its fragments. But the cheerless dancers, the unctuous speeches, and the strains of “Mr. Wonderful” performed at his son’s communion are empty echoes of the earthy Tarantella and the bawdy folk songs that opened the wedding sequence in The Godfather. There ethnic and family feeling are authentic and intense, as Don Vito accepts warm congratulations, provides advice and metes out justice to friends and relations. The Lake Tahoe celebration is a cold spectacular, acculturated and alienated, with Senator Geary’s hypocritical eulogy to Michael serving as a metaphor for the event.
The family has also gone through changes. Michael’s sister Connie, in a self-destructive rage towards Michael, has begun to drift from man to man, and has committed the most heinous of sins, neglect of her children. Fredo, Michael’s weak, hapless older brother, cannot control his wife, and feels only rage towards Michael for his younger brother’s having assumed the role that by rights should be his. He breaks the familial code by conspiring with Roth in an attempt to murder Michael. The tribal world enters jarringly in the person of Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), an old line Mafia captain, who in melancholy and anger demands a Tarantella at the communion party and the right from Michael to make war on Roth’s New York allies. Pentangeli is crude, feeling, colloquial, loyal; he lives in Don Vito’s old house in the Bronx and maintains his roots. He is also a murderer, of course. Coppola doesn’t romanticize him, but he makes his presence an implicit judgment on Michael and his way of life.
Coppola continually intercuts the Little Italy of the young Don Vito with the affluent world of Roth and Michael’s byzantine plots. Much of the plotting and betraying take place in Cuba at the point of Castro’s victory. This provides epic material for Coppola’s camera, though he sometimes augments the spectacular with a bit of insight into the decadence and destructiveness of pre-Revolutionary Cuba. He also avoids the taint of reflex anti-communism of movies like Che. But though Coppola does wisely recognize the significance of history, the film primarily remains on a pictorial plane—an epic frame for the actions of the family. It is not the history of immigrants or the Cuban revolution which are prime, it’s the family’s movement through the two films from simple loyalties and unity to complex relationships and dissolution which are at its heart. For Coppola there is history and there are individuals, but he never quite dramatizes the relationship between them. What he does convey is the rapacity of capitalists without ever getting to the root of capitalism. Thus, he includes scenes where the heads of multi-national corporations, including the Mafioso chieftains, gather to divide up the Cuban spoils, but there is no indication that these capitalists have anything to do with the crisis of Cuban society except to cash in on it. Coppola’s and Puzo’s historical treatment lacks a certain resonance not aided by repeated references to the metaphor of a declining empire. It’s an analysis which might have benefitted by more Marx than Gibbon, more historical dialectics and less of a belief in historical inevitability.
Though Coppola may not have a profound sense of history, he is entirely capable of illuminating the breakdown of the traditional codes and values, and its tragic impact on Michael and the Corleone family. The decline of the family is filmed in dark, chiaroscuro interiors, in sterile affluent rooms where people are often blurred or seen as silhouettes against lighted windows. It is joyless and alienating and its darkness contrasts vividly with the epic tight that suffuses Little Italy and the world of the young Don Vito. In the same way. Michael’s ghostly, affectless and near dead countenance contrasts sharply with the quiet grace and warmth of the young Don Vito. Coppola is truly gifted at eliciting the striking image and metaphor.
Coppola, in a profound understanding of the code’s decline, comprehends that it doesn’t just disappear—there are aspects of it that continue to live, though in adulterated and distorted ways. In what seems like one last gesture for the old ways, Frankie Pentangeli’s testimony before a senate crime committee is stilled by invoking the code of silence (omerta). Frankie also commits suicide, following the old imperial tradition of defeated tribal chiefs. But he is an anachronism, and it is Fredo’s betrayal of brother Michael, Kay’s abortion and her and Michael’s separation which are more characteristic of the new world. Kay is a WASP outsider who belongs to the non-racket past of the Michael of The Godfather. Coppola doesn’t do much with Kay except use her to illustrate Michael’s double-edged relationship to the tradition. When learning that she’s aborted his expected child, Michael literally closes the door on her, as he had done in a different situation at the end of The Godfather. She has transgressed the most sacred and fundamental familial and machismo codes—a clear sign of the family dissolution. It is ironic, though, that Michael’s connection to this aspect of the code seems ritualistic rather than deeply felt. He obviously wants a son and believes in the sacredness of the family, but it’s an abstract ideal for him, he never demonstrates the feeling for his children which the young and old Don Vito radiate and bask in. In fact, it’s Fredo who acts as surrogate father for Michael’s unhappy son, Anthony.
The death of Michael’s loving but submerged mother severs the last link to the Corleone tradition. And even her haunting but ineffectual affirmation of the code, “you can never lose your family”, can only be viewed ironically. The family lies in fragments and even the loyal stepbrother and consigliore, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), is baited by Michael, and seems to want out of the whole operation. Michael’s alienation is only accentuated by his senseless vendetta against already weakened enemies like Fredo. Roth and Pentangeli adhering to the forms of the code while losing its substance. Coppola views the violence with a more critical eye than on previous occasions. It’s more detached and impersonal than the stern justice that Don Vito deals to personal enemies like Don Fanucci and Don Ciccio, or even the politically meaningful slaughter of the five families at the end of The Godfather. Still, one sometimes feels that Coppola’s demystification of the Mafia doesn’t go far enough, that the young Don Vito is viewed in too heroic a mold, and that the virtues of the tribal Mafia of De Niro (young Don Vito) and Brando (old Don Vito) absolve it from judgement, and that for Coppola their sense of roots and familial feeling make their criminality less vicious.
But Michael is another story and—like Welles’ Kane, dying alone in his vacant baroque palace or, like Scarlett, setting off alone to Tara—Coppola’s last shot is of Michael sitting in somber isolation, tragically contemplating his empire. Why is Michael as alienated as he is? Is the tragedy based on his being forced into his father’s world without ever having a choice—as is implied by the final flashback at the end? Is it the breaking from his father’s tradition, and its consequences which brings on the tragic mask? Coppola never does say. Michael’s alienation and emotional deadness are apparent throughout The Godfather as well as here, but never subjected to real analysis. Coppola’s strength at a director it not psychological revelation or personal intimacy. It’s the pictorial and metaphoric, the strong narrative and the ambitious conception which distinguish his work.
Coppola has worked through the conventions of the crime genre movie to make an epic film about America. The film has its violence, shootouts and murders, but it also comes close to capturing part of America’s tragedy and nightmare—one which goes far beyond the parochial world of the Mafia.
From The Godfather through The Godfather, Part II, the Corleones, like most immigrants to America, experienced the transformation of the claustrophobic and sometimes destructive love and loyalty of family and tribe into a fragmented, rootless and materially comfortable form of the capitalist success story. For Coppola to have gone further—to have looked more deeply into the structure of capitalism and its ethos—would have been to risk commercial failure.
But what Coppola has done is weighty and grand. He has made a visually beautiful film, containing strong, distinctive performances by De Niro and Pacino, while operating within a commercial form. And he has taken a giant step from the more accessible, coherent and action-filled The Godfather, to create an epic about immigrants which begins to take hold of the whole saga of Americanization and the spiritual dissolution that resulted from it.
Cinéaste, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1975), pp. 38-39